On my quest today to find the origin of the notion that cats have 9 lives, has basically lead in a strange journey of religion, numerology, mythology and magic as well as some beliefs coming from a scientific angle.
The first ‘belief’ I explored was based on ‘logical observation’ and comes from the origin of thinking that it has something to do with a cat always landing on its feet. People witnessed the cat’s agility and dexterity to out manoeuvre their precarious situation to escape unharmed. Something other animals did not seem able to do. However, there seems to be some flawed models to base this assessment on, as the ability for a cat to be able to rotate mid-fall and land on its feet, is greatly dependent apparently, on having a tail. This therefore begs the question that perhaps only tailed cats are blessed with the 9 lives prophecy and their tail-less relatives are only fortunate enough to get 8?? Or only 1? The ruling seems unclear in this instance. We must look deeper to find the truth…
The next stop on the journey of discovery into the 9 lives tail (tale- pardon the pun) is the religious aspect of this belief. In Ancient Egypt there were 27 recognized Gods that were grouped into 3 clusters of 9 Gods. Each cluster was responsible for the Water, Earth and Heavens. Egyptians believed cats were close to the Gods and that Cats had been bestowed the authority to be messengers. Some even believed Cats were in fact Gods themselves, that lived on the earth in the body of a cat. Nine, being an important number, was believed to be the gift given to the cats in the form of lives from the God Ra, who was often portrayed in the appearance of the cat. Another belief came from the Goddess Freya, who was the sovereign of nine worlds who thanked cats that carried her chariot across the sky. Still seems a bit ambiguous, so I dug a little deeper.
A far more terrible tale emerged from Medieval Europe came from where the bizarre ritual of throwing Cats from high Towers was a popular pursuit. The Count of Ypres is most famous for the act and on one occasion threw a considerable number of these poor felines from the highest tower in the town. It’s not noted how many survived, but it was noted that more often than not, and surprisingly, that they did. The keeper of the castle is purportedly noted has having recorded these words in his diary – “in spite of the height of the fall, the animal ran off quickly so that it might never be caught in a similar ceremony”. Perfectly awful. What else can I find… ?
Fast forward a little to the Middle Ages where Witchcraft and a strong fear of evil was a serious concern in people’s daily lives. Always on the lookout for representatives of Satan, it was believed a Witch could turn herself into a cat to escape her true identity. It was believed this could be done no more than 9 times in a Witch’s life, returning to her true form upon her death. Quite fascinating really…certainly explains more about the superstition around black cats! However, we must continue to delve if we are to find the truth.
The journey takes us into numerology which is almost as ancient as time itself. Number 9 became recognized as ‘magical’ from ancient times and certainly reinforced if you believe the paragraph above! It closes the numerical loop which forms the basis of numerolgy: 1-9, 19, 29, 999. This number reproduces itself when multiplied by any number eg. 9×7=63, 6+3=9. (Try it for yourself with another number.. )
Nine is used throughout history as a sacred and symbolic number. The Ancient Greek writings of Pluto reveal that Atlantis included 9 kingdoms, Angels in Orthodoxy have 9 ranks, the Ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit is a star with 9 symbols of the 9 gifts. There seems to be some further symbolic links with events like Bach’s Ninth Symphony being the last work before his death. Superstitions have arisen such as The Ninth Wave is the nightmare of sailors. However, none of this really explains why a cat would therefore inherit this theory of ‘Nine Lives’, but let’s just say it would be a brave soul who proposes ‘TEN Lives’! And really – it just doesn’t sound as cool, does it?!
The 19th Century saw a less superstitious and far more logical approach returning when French Physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey conducted an experiment using a cat and a camera taking photographs as it fell. These photos revealed the cat’s extreme ability to twist and flex its head, spine, legs and tail to yes – land on its feet seemed also to lessen the impact and protect the cat from injury. Quite magical to watch but perhaps more an evolution of the species than supernatural powers, as the curious nature of the cat requires these specialized skills to ensure its survival!
The last of the myths and beliefs comes from an old English Proverb – “ A Cat has nine lives. For Three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays”.
So there we have it people. Fact, Fiction, mythology or magic? Feel free to take your pick. A myth as timeless and as elusive as the very being it surrounds. But one thing is sure, look into the eyes of your cat. Let your gaze just ‘be’ with theirs. There’s a world there. Of ancient mysteries, magic and wisdom that is undeniable. Perhaps, for no other reason than this, we want to believe in their story, their powers, and willingly submit to their Godliness and take our position beneath them. A remarkable creature, an enigma that defies explanation. For them, we throw away all logic, and believe anything is possible. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.